Harvard Crimson story about the ONI

The Harvard Crimson wrote a story about the OpenNet Initiative featured here.

HLS Team To Study Internet Censorship

Researchers at Harvard Law School are gathering empirical data on the censorship of internet content and are using it to develop software that can subvert filters.A handful of professors at the Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the University of Cambridge and the University of Toronto have dubbed their project, which hopes to map out the different methods of internet surveillance being used, the Open Net Initiative (ONI).

“We are tracking global content filtering, a lot of which is undertaken in secret, and a lot of which is clandestine,” said Ronald J. Deibert, an associate professor with The Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto. “We are trying to get a sense of what kind of checks are being put on content by governments around the world.”

The ONI was founded in January after researchers from the three universities realized that they were all searching for the same answers but through different methods. The initiative has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from the Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute.

Deibert likened ONI’s methods to those of an international intelligence agency, citing their combination of electronic network interrogation with human-based intelligence.

“What we are aiming to create here is a kind of civil society counterpart to the worldwide intelligence networks that states operate,” Deibert said.

The researchers, who have already gathered data on many East Asian countries, tracked internet censoring in China by downloading websites from computers that are connected to Chinese networks. The researchers then compared the results with websites downloaded in Canada, where the internet is not censored by law.

“If I can access a webpage fine in Toronto but not on this computer in China, then something is wrong,” Deibert said.

John G. Palfrey, the Executive Director of the Berkman Center, said one of the most compelling aspects of the China case study was the inconsistency in censorship.

“There is huge variation in whether or not something is getting filtered on any given day. What you are trying to access may be blocked on one day and not on another day,” Palfrey said. “You may be able to access a site in one part of China and not be able to access it in another part of the country on the same day.”

Palfrey said the discrepancies may be ascribed to the government’s desire to intimidate citizens despite limited censorship capabilities.

“You know you can’t filter very effectively, but if you keep people on their toes, then that is an affirmative strategy,” Palfrey said.

While the initiative is primarily concerned with gathering and assessing data, Palfrey said they will likely make policy recommendations in the future.

“The first step of any study like this is to make a positive statement and illuminate the situation as much as we can,” Palfrey said. “There is no question though that there is a normative component to a study of this sort.”

In addition to researching the extent of filtering worldwide, the ONI has begun to develop software that can circumvent internet filters.

“These are tools that allow citizens to get around content filters that exist in the countries that they live in,” Deibert said. “They would be distributed as an open source product for citizens to use worldwide.”

Deibert described one of these tools as a peer to peer network similar to software commonly used to download music. He said that this technology allows users in China to access blocked websites through peoples’ computers in other countries.

Both Palfrey and Deibert agreed that there may be cases where some censorship is necessary and desirable, but that it should always remain transparent.

“We do understand that there are pressures in certain cultures where it makes sense for governments to have control over content on the Web. I think the issue that we are most concerned about is the lack of transparency. If citizens can’t know what they don’t know, then that is much more troubling to us,” Palfrey said.

Deibert said he ultimately hopes people worldwide will become more aware of the degree of internet censoring, forcing the amount of filtering to be reduced.

“There is a lot more that goes on beneath the World Wide Web than the vast majority of users realize. When you open the lid on the internet, there is an enormous amount of checks and control that are put into place and some of them are secret,” Deibert said.

“We think of the internet as a global commons of information. If that is true then we are required as citizens worldwide to ensure that these filters are not arbitrary,” he said.